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A generous helping of feminism on 'Dinner Party' plates
by Charlotte Harmon

It's Saturday night at Judy Chicago's Santa Monica studio. The next day she flies to San Francisco where she will supervise installation of her feminist exhibit, "The Dinner Party," at the Museum of Modern Art.

She wears a blue Mexican shirt, colorful, with patterns of machine-stitched thread. Her hair springs up and out several inches from her head into a ring of tight, black curls. But she looks to be deeply sad-as if floating on some enormous river of sorrow.

She mentions some docents she recently talked to at the San Francisco museum. They denied their own personal experiences by refusing to talk about them, she claims. Her hands make pushing-away gestures. "They said, 'Oh, but everyone else has had that.' experience. I really started to weep because I was with women who totally invalidated their own experience and their own feelings and didn't feel it was OK to feel what they felt. And I understand that because for us to really feel what we feel authentically is to realize that the world is not for us...It's hard to face."

During the 1960s, Judy Gerowitz divested herself of all names imposed on her through "male social dominance" and became Judy Chicago. In the 1970s, teaching feminist art classes at Cal State Fresno and CalArts, she began reading novels, biographies and other nonfiction books by women.

In 1971, browsing an antique store in Oregon, she saw an exceptionally beautiful old plate. The china-painting on it intrigues her. She conceived the idea for "The Dinner Party" in the antique store. Her first thought was to create a work of art featuring china-painting on plates as another way to express "The Great Landies," a series of paintings she was working on then. "Plates are associated with eating," she wrote. I felt images on plates would say women have been swallowed instead of being honored."

She settles on the idea of designing 14-inch dinner plates-one plate each for 39 women. Designs on the 39 plates would express what the women did with their lives. Grouped together, the plates would represent what women had achieved in Western civilization. 

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Feminist author-artist Judy Chicago in her Santa Monica studio. Times photo by George Rose

Chicago says she sees an image of a vagina as expressing vulnerability, and adds that her husband, artist Lloyd Hamrol, often rejected such femininity in her drawings. Vaginal imagery also appears on the plates of "The Dinner Party."

The plate is an ironic symbol, says Chicago, symbolizing how women's aspirations were limited. "It's a celebration of all our achievement and a terrible shriek about the containment of all our power."

In the rotunda of the museum where "The Dinner Party" is housed, spotlights flood onto a dinner table in the shape of an equilateral triangle. At each side of the triangle are place settings for 13 women.

The dinner table rests on a floor made of 2,300 hand-cast porcelain tiles. Chicago calls it the "Heritage Floor." Using Palmer Method-the handwriting we learned in school-the tiles are inscribed with names of another 999 illustrious women in gold china-paint. The paint is covered with a lustre overglaze that makes the name appear and disappear as the viewer walks about the table.

Women's written history is incomplete, Chicago says, full of gaps. A woman can't say, "I am one woman in a long line of women who have tried to make art. I am one woman in a long line of women who want to make science."

Broad gestures accompany her conversation. She's laughing and excited when she explains that "The Dinner Party" plugs some gaps in women's history, and that the book based on the exhibit, because it is written, documents what women have done with greater length and distribution.

In print, "The Dinner Party: A Symbol of Our Heritage" (Doubleday; $24.95, hardcover; $9.95 in Anchor/Doubleday paperback) is divided into four parts, beginning with edited diary entries. Chicago writes about the problem-solving involved in ceramic and needlework creations. She writes about the scope of her feelings from 1973, when she began the work, through the next five years. The entry for Feb. 15, 1977 shows a high ("I'm china-painting...Yes, we finally seem to have plates") and a downer ("now to have to go deep again and pull creation out of the morass of agony-NO-O-O-O-!"), all in one day.

She writes about creation, she explains, "to demystify it and to give information to other people, particularly women, so that they would know what to expect... if they wants to aspire."

Part two is a catalogue for the art. There are color reproductions of the plates. In this section the 39 women at the dinner table are presented in chronological order, from Primordial Goddess to Trotula to Virginia Woolf and artist Georgia O'Keefe. Chicago tells life stories about the women, plus something about the iconography of the plates.

The third part is an annotated index on the women whose names appear on the Heritage Floor. As in section two, names appear chronologically.

In "Voices From the Project," the fourth part of the book, other, including men, who worked on "The Dinner Party" speak briefly and personally. This part, says Chicago, offers "a testament to the personal growth and changes that the people went through in the studio."

Chicago wears tinted classes. Because she wears them, you can only hear her tears when she cries. Chicago cries because she feels people think of her as a pushy artist who hunts out publicity. She says she doesn't promote herself. "I hate public stuff."

She also says "The Dinner Party" is going to change her life.  "I'm going to have to brace myself for interviews."

A support community helped Chicago write the third scholarly section of the book.  Eight women are credited by name for major research contributions.  Chicago

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organized, edited and added her own writing to "transform" the text to her feminist vision. 

For section three, a team of 20 researched almost 3,000 accomplished women.  May Cohen, Chicago's mother, typed a bibliography of some 1,000 volumes.  Cohen says she used her new knowledge to entertain friends at dinner parties.

During "The Dinner Party" process Chicago changed her relationship with her husband.  "My need to work with other people and his need for solitude led us to dissolve our marriage, although not our friendship." They will soon be divorced. 

The dinner plates of "The Dinner Party" sometimes depress Chicago, all of women's power limited to the context of a plate.  She hopes her audience will feel saddened as well as exuberant.  If enough people feel depressed, she says, perhaps they will help broaden the horizons on which women may achieve.  Maybe. 

Harmon is a contributing editor at Los Angeles magazine, and former Southern California correspondent to Publishers Weekly.
Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research. For questions or comments regarding sensitive content, access, and use related to this collection, please contact transcribe@si.edu.